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COVID-19 Safety Measures At Legislature Lead To Transparency Concerns

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during the first day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.
(David Calvert/The Nevada Independent via AP, Pool)

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during the first day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.


Nevada lawmakers returned to Carson City last week for the 81st regular session of the Legislature.  

The first week of Nevada’s legislative session is typically very quiet, but there was something of a bombshell dropped last week by Governor Steve Sisolak. It became a national story about tech companies.

A bill draft proposal that the governor supports got released. It would create “innovation zones” that would create tech-oriented company towns.

The idea is if a private investor has 50,000 acres of contiguous land and promises to invest $1 billion into that land and the project they build there they would essentially become similar to a county government and part of it would involve leveling taxes for the state.

There is specific language that would make it so that this company would be leveling, essentially, an industry-specific tax on the services it provides.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Nevada Independent broke the story on this last week. This hasn’t been officially introduced, but they were able to get copies of the early draft language.

It’s an idea that was put forward by Blockchains LLC CEO Jeffrey Berns. During Sisolak’s State of the State address, he mentioned Blockchains by name, and he also introduced this idea of innovation zones.

People in this state really point to Northern Nevada and specifically the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center or TRIC complex as an example of economic diversity. The complex is close to where the Blockchains LLC already owns acreage, and that’s where they want to build their first innovation zone.

I think there is some support for it on that end.

On the other end, this is just a 21st-century version of a company town that mining companies or logging companies set up across the western U.S. throughout the 1800s.

It is kind of a throwback.

Besides the innovation zones, the budget has been the biggest concern in the Legislature.

There will still be cuts, although the governor has proposed filling some of the cuts that were made over the summer with federal funding and moving some money around.

It is not known how that will shake out in the end.

This will lead to a fight over the state’s revenue structure. There are three proposed mining tax changes that would seek to amend the constitution. Those are still up for consideration.

Of course, there are the sales tax and gaming tax increases proposals from Clark County Education Association. The teachers union says it really just wants to start the conversation about revenue in the state, and where we should be looking to get more resources to help protect some of the social services that have been most impacted by the pandemic.

In addition to the budget, there are several bills designed to address police and justice reform.

There is a lot of unfinished business around those topics from the summer’s special session. We’re seeing early bills to ban the death penalty. There are two proposals to do that. There are also proposals to limit police use of force during protests. Another bill would require data collection during traffic stops.

All of this, of course, is still preliminary. Bills at this point could still be blocked from having a hearing.

Besides the efforts by lawmakers inside the building, outside the legislature building, COVID safety measures are causing concern among lobbyists, activists, and voters. They’re saying virtual session threatens transparency and access to lawmakers.

The building is completely closed to everybody except lawmakers, their essential staff and a small number of reporters.

The guidance is only 15 journalists are allowed in the building at one time. So it is now a first-come, first-serve situation.

Everyone who goes into the building has to get a rapid COVID test once a week unless they can prove they’ve already been vaccinated.  

Normally, this is a fairly publicly accessible process. Usually, lobbyists and activists really rely on having access to the building so they pull lawmakers aside and talk about the issues they’re there to support.

There is a lot of concern about access to lawmakers themselves, but there is also concern over government transparency. All of the committee hearings are done over Zoom. There is a digital divide in this state. Not every community has access to things like Zoom and other video conferencing technology. In some ways, this could make it harder for members of the public to follow what’s going on.

Leo Murrieta, director of Make the Road Nevada, which is focused on issues related to Latinx and immigrant communities, like justice reform, climate change, and education said face-to-face interactions are very important for his organization.

“The pandemic makes it harder,” Murrieta said, “But that just means that organizations like Make the Road are going work harder to make sure that corporate lobbyists aren’t the ones having the last word in the legislature, or really any chamber of government.”

The Legislative Council Bureau has announced that once they get to the point where everyone who is normally in the building is vaccinated, they are open to looking into some way to restore public access to the building through something like a reservation system.

Until that happens, Make the Road Nevada is training community members that they work with on how to use teleconferencing apps and software like Zoom, and how to observe hearings on YouTube.

They’re also working with members on how to pitch lawmakers on the issues they’re interested in getting support for.

As for everyday Nevadans who are locked out of the building, several people gathered outside on the first day of Legislature to protest.

The protest was organized by some of the same people who have been holding right-wing protests every week in Carson City.

Faith Qualtieri, who came to Carson City from Fallon, explained why she was there. 

“I feel like red, rural Nevada is being locked out,” she said.

Republicans lawmakers have echoed that concern. Some of it is just demographics. Nevada only has just more than 3 million people total and more than 2 million of them live is in Clark County. When you look at the rest of the state, which is large geographically, there are just not that many people to be distributed around.

I think a lot of people who are normally used to being able to get in and talk to legislators and watch the process, feel really concerned right now.  

Bert Johnson, Legislative Reporter

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.